Profile in Courage
By Amanda Kistler as told to Anthony Slaby, Strides Magazine
Viterbo biopsychology major Amanda Kistler, 24, served as a medic in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This essay is her account of the morning of Feb. 22, 2007, a day she’ll never forget.
Chaos. It’s hard to remember and explain.
There had been a huge explosion. The Humvee behind us was engulfed in smoke and dust. We turned around and drove cautiously back to it, where I grabbed my medical bag and got out.
Sergeant Reed was helping Staff Sergeant Hays climb out of the damaged Humvee when I reached the truck. Half of Hays’ face was gone. An Explosive Force Projectile (EFP) had exploded and ripped through their 12,000-pound vehicle, sending pieces of shrapnel through his face. He didn’t have a nose anymore. There were just two eyes looking at me. He was crying and using what was left of his mouth to say, “I’m not going to make it, I’m going to die.” There was blood everywhere.
I did the best I could to clear his mouth and throat. Because of the large amount of blood loss I was unable to give him an IV. I just tried to keep him talking because I knew if he passed out, he wasn’t going to make it.
I had joined the National Guard in 2002 because I wanted the experience and the challenge. Three years later, I wasn’t happy when I got the notice that our unit was being activated, but I had known something was coming. It was mid-August, just two weeks before school started, and I had just bought my books and landed a new job. A month later, I was in Camp Shelby, Miss.
My unit arrived in Kuwait in March 2006 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After some additional training and some time to become acclimated to the weather (it hit 148 degrees one day in July), we were sent to Iraq.
The base where my medical unit was stationed was teeming with medical support, so after just one month in theatre I was reassigned to the 1-125th STRIKE Field Artillery Battalion. The unit was charged with route security, presence patrols, and serving as a quick reaction force. Our base was located 80–100 miles south of Baghdad, just outside of the infamous Sunni Triangle.
Medics weren’t allowed to help our troops by driving, gunning, or anything of that sort, so basically I rode along in the back of the Humvee, waiting for something bad to happen. There had been a few minor incidents, but nothing could ever prepare me for what was to come.
While on patrol in the early morning hours of Feb. 22, we watched as mortar rounds landed near our base. Because our squad was already outside the wire, we were sent to find the point of origin. We were traveling in three Humvees, my vehicle was in the middle. I remember talking with the others in my truck, and saying, “One of these times there is going to be an ambush and we’re going to get blown up.” A minute later, there were explosions.
Everything happened so fast. EFPs had gone off ahead and behind us. We stopped, and attempted to establish radio contact. Everyone seemed to be all right. The Humvee behind us radioed back to say they were “good,” when another explosion occurred.
I told Sergeant Smith to keep Staff Sergeant Hays talking and moved on to assist the others. Someone had called for a tourniquet. I knew that wasn’t good.
The lower part of Specialist Richert’s leg resembled spaghetti. He would later lose his entire leg. Specialist Jones had suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was unable to communicate, and we originally thought he had been killed. Finally, he responded by honking the horn in his truck. He still couldn’t talk, but would squeeze your hand when you asked him questions.
Sergeant First Class Berry had died. I couldn’t help but wonder what I had done wrong. Later, I was told that even if there had been a surgical team on sight, he still would have died. His internal organs had been ripped apart from the explosion and shrapnel.
The wounded were loaded onto helicopters and flown to a trauma center in Baghdad and then on to Germany and the United States for higher levels of treatment. Upon returning to base several hours later, we learned that the base had been hit by several rounds of mortar fire, and that five others from our platoon had been wounded. It had not been a good night for our unit.
After the completion of my extended tour, I finally returned to the United States on July 13, 2007. I had the opportunity to meet up with Hays, his family, and my other comrades from Iraq at a military ball this past fall. I have to say, he looks amazing, particularly better than he did the last time I saw him. I think he’s beautiful.
Overall, I’m glad I was there and that I did what I was supposed to do. I often wonder to myself what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to handle the situation. Would Hays and Richert have died? I’m just glad I didn’t let them down.
SPC Amanda Kistler received the Army Commendation Medal with Valor for her actions on Feb. 22. The soldiers who were with her that night recommended her for the honor. The accompanying paper states, “For valorous achievements while serving as a squad medic on a combat logistics patrol during an attack by multiple Explosive Force Projectile arrays. SPC Kistler disregarded incoming small arms fire to assist with removing soldiers from the stricken vehicle, correctly and effectively performing triage and applying medical care. Her willingness to expose herself to danger and expert application of medical skills saved the lives of two of her fellow soldiers.”